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Field Notes from Tuscany
By Jessica Dupuy
Feb 23, 2022
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Just back from a quick trip to a few Tuscan wine regions.  Goodness, it felt good to be back on the road—it's been quite a while.  While I'd been to Tuscany a few times for leisure, this was the first time I've had to focus on wine, and I'm grateful to my hosts, Wilson Daniels, for introducing us to a few choice producers to help give context about what lies ahead for regions such as Chianti Classico, Brunello di Montalcino, Maremma, and Bolgheri.  

What's clear from the experience is that these iconic regions may be doing business as usual, but there is a clear departure from making wines the same way they've always been made.  Here are a few takeaways I gleaned from the experience.  

1) Some producers are placing a greater focus on regenerative farming, more specifically on carbon farming.  This involves implementing viticultural practices to help improve the rate at which CO2 is removed from the atmosphere and converted to plant material and soil organic matter.  When carbon gains from land management exceed the carbon losses from the soils, the farming techniques are considered a success.  This includes everything from using compost and propagating good soils using worms to maximizing water retention and biodiversity throughout the vineyard and beyond.  This was a highlight of a visit with winemaker Federico Radi of Biondi-Santi in Montalcino.  

"Though Sangiovese is planted all over Italy, there are really only a few magical spots where it is best.  We have inherited something beautiful in Montalcino and have the opportunity to preserve the best of what we have," said Radi."  We are not fighting nature.  We are the nature, growing diversity in different ways for the future."

2) Precision agriculture makes all the difference in land management and viticultural decisions.  At Val di Suga in the Brunello di Montalcino DOCG, operations director and agronomist Andrea Lonardi, and winemaker Pietro Riccobono, employ global positioning systems, environmental sensors, satellite, data remote sensing, and geographic information systems to track everything that influences grape yield and quality from weather, water retention, vine health, and the overall microclimate of their three distinct vineyards.  Lonardi shared that this has instructed them to harvest part of their Vigna del Lago vineyard at a higher part of the slope than at the vines at a lower part.  

"Vines at the top have more sand, and we treat them with more nitrogen, but at the bottom, we use wheat as a cover crop to extract more water.  This is all possible because of precision farming," says Lonardi.  

3) Sangiovese clones are a large part of preserving the past and securing the future for producers throughout Tuscany.  Federica Stianti Mascheroni of Castel di Volpaia and Federico Radi of Biondi Santi spoke passionately about looking to clones from mother plants within their own vineyards to other regional clones to see what is possible for the vineyards as they transition with an evolving climate.  At Volpaia, the Stianti Mascheroni family has cultivated 25 clones indigenous to their Casanova vineyard, which are highlighted in the Il Puro Chianti Classico Gran Selezione offering.  At Biondi Santi, Radi fosters an estate nursery of clones from 50 specific mother vines.  

“The nursery is how we keep the DNA of Biondi Santi,” says Radi.  “Here, our vision is to preserve what we inherited.”

4) Sometimes, you have to use creative pruning and trellising techniques that best represent the vineyard microclimate.  At both Biondi Santi and Tenuta Sette Ciele in Bolgheri, planting density is a challenge.  There is simply not enough space to grow sprawling canopies.  And you risk overexerting the energy of the plant if you don't prune to yield a specific number of buds.  All of this is dependent on variety, of course, but in the case of Sette Cieli, winemaker and vineyard manager Elena Pozzolini has adjusted the training Merlot and Malbec from a double cordon/spur positioning to a two-dimensional gobelet design that keeps the trunk and canopy growth closer to the ground.  "This helps the plant use too much energy and can produce better grapes," says Pozzolini."

At Biondi Santi, Federico Radi trains his vines in two V-shaped canes that rise on a trellis to help give adequate airflow to growing clusters and maximize the plant's energy from the trunk.

5) The future for many red wines is less oak.  Across the board, it seems all the producers visited were emphasizing a commitment to less oak aging (or at least using more large-vessel neutral oak).  In the case of Val di Suga, Lonardi emphasized a progression from relying on oak and stainless steel to the use of more concrete during the aging process.

"This region has a big issue that it needs to look at for the future, and that is the time on oak.  Spending 24 months on oak is not simple," says Lonardi.  "From our point of view, there are some wines that need more time in bottle rather than oak.  For that reason, a good compromise for us is cement."

For Lonardi, from the fermentation and extraction process to aging, it's all about best managing the structure of tannins.  

While this is only skimming the surface of what a few producers are doing in their respective regions, I do think these producers are a crucial part of paving the way for what is to come.  Especially when it comes to climate change and preserving the heritage behind the wines of these places.  Of course, only time will tell if these efforts will pay off, but if tasting through recent releases from them is any indication, I think they're onto something.      

Read more wine columns by Jessica:    Jessica Dupuy
Connect with her on Twitter:   JessicaNDupuy