Exploring Biodynamic Wine – A Visit To Tenuta Di Valgiano
It seemed like a great idea at the time to traverse the mountains from Pietrasanta to Valgiano in my search for quest to learn more about biodynamic wine. As the weather closed in and our appointment time neared, ignoring the advice of Toby, the aristocratic Garmin sat nav voice who recommended taking the autostrada, seemed increasingly foolish.
I had a number of visits lined up for my recent trip to Italy, but none were as eagerly anticipated as my visit to Tenuta Di Valgiano. Apart from loving the Valgiano wines ever since I tasted them at RAW 2012, I’d also taken an increased interest in biodynamics of late, and was relishing the opportunity to learn more from Saverio Petrilli, the oenolgoist / viticulturist at Valgiano.
The theories underpinning biodynamics may not be for everyone, but what seems undeniable, to my palate at least, is the positive effect that the practices seem to have on the quality of wine produced. I knew that Saverio was a highly regarded proponent of biodynamics in Italy and in between cursing and spluttering our directional folly, I pondered what would greet us upon our arrival at Valgiano – would I be subjected to ‘holier than thou’ indoctrination and, more importantly, would I leave the estate as a card carrying ‘Steinerite’? Ultimately what I encountered was an approach to winemaking that was both enlightening and thought-provoking in equal measure.
Tenuta Di Valgiano is a property near Lucca owned by Laura di Collobiano and Moreno Petrini. The estate was certified organic in 1997 and converted to biodynamics in 2001/2. On the face of it, conversion to biodynamics is the ultimate risk / reward decision for a grower. Placing so much trust in the rhythms of nature is inherently risky – decisions which, as Saverio pointed out, could all too easily be delegated to the chemical producers now firmly reside with the grower. If the equilibrium of the vineyard is destabilised, the grower must strive to understand the reasons behind such events and not merely deal with the consequences. If you believe the hype, this added emphasis on ’cause and effect’ allows the grower to develop an understanding of, and connection with, the the land and vines.
Valgiano is an estate of roughly 21ha nestling in a valley in the Colline Lucchesi DOC. Bounded by the apennines and the Mediterranean Sea, the climate at Valgiano is somewhat unpredictable, but the cool sea breezes wafting up from the sea and rolling down from the mountain tops combine to temper effects of the hot summer sun. Erosion from the mountain range has resulted in geological strata of alberese, sandstone and clay. Because the mountain has had such an influence on soil composition, the depth and ratio of each stratum varies depending on vineyard location.
The predominant red grape varieties cultivated at Valgiano are Sangiovese, Merlot and Syrah which combine to produce the estate’s two red wines – Palistorti Rosso and the estate’s flagship wine – “Tenuta Di Valgiano Rosso”. White varieties include Vermentino, Trebbiano, Malvasia, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc which go into Valgiano’s white Palistorti Bianco.
Getting Our Hands Dirty
Due to the inclement weather we couldn’t walk through the vineyards on this visit, but we did get an opportunity to get our hands dirty with some of the biodynamic preparations that are integral to the practical application of Steiner’s theories or, in Valgiano’s case, the methods of Australian biodynamic guru Alex Podolinsky.
Preparation 500 (pictured above in its pre-dynamised state), horn manure, is sprayed in the vineyards to ensure that the soil remains nourished and rich in humus. Before being diluted and dynamised in water, the dark coloured manure remains moist and almost pliable in texture. Quartz, in the form of dynamised horn silica (preparation 501), is sprayed several times a year at Valgiano to maximise photosynthesis of the vines which in turn increases the aromatic and tannic potential of the grapes.
The so-called pseudoscience behind biodynamics is frequently called into question by its detractors. In his explanation of the preparations, Saverio extolled their considerable functional benefits on vine growth and soil quality but made sure not to descend into talk of alchemy that so often fuels the arguments of the sceptics.
Intervention in the winery is kept to a minimum with the grapes sorted by hand prior to a first plunging with feet. Further plunging is carried out with a steel plunger and the grapes are left to ferment outdoors under a canopy. This natural air provides an efficient cooling mechanism although temperature controlled plates are employed if required. After fermentation, the wines are racked off by gravity into lightly toasted French oak barriques. After a period of ageing, the wines are assembled and bottled unfined, unfiltered and with the addition of minimal sulphur.
The usage of barriques at Valgiano is something that has puzzled me in the past; I’ve found it difficult to reconcile such an approach with the minimally interventionist philosophies employed elsewhere in the winery. When quizzed about this Saverio was typically forthright in his response. Experience at Valgiano has allowed for an understanding of the interaction of the wines with wood. It is not a question of trend or indeed what others are doing; it’s quite simply a question of what works best for Valgiano. Saverio strives to limit the amount of new oak used and is vociferous in his assertions that the wines shouldn’t show an excessive or overt oaky affectation, maintaining his view that the human body is not conditioned to digest woody flavours and compounds.
All of this theory was of course interspersed with some tasting. When I first tasted the Valgiano wines, I remarked that Palistorti Rosso was a wine that offered early term drinking fashioned in the same style as Tenuta Di Valgiano Rosso. As I have become more familiar with both wines however, I’ve detected more noticeable differences in profile. Where the Tenuta has more elegance, the Palistorti is more edgy and rustic. Saverio considers Palistorti to be typically Tuscan whereas the Tenuta is typically Valgiano. It’s an interesting viewpoint and one that is sure to add even more fuel to the debate in my own head about ‘sense of place.’
The barrel sample of Tenuta Di Valgiano Rosso 2012 that I tasted showed a certain herbal freshness and a marked increased acidity when compared with 2011. We visited in April 2013 and Saverio remarked that this was the first time he could really feel the 2012 Tenuta coming together. If the 2012 was only starting to come together, the 2011 was already beautifully interwoven, even in its infancy – powerful, intense and spicy with chewy fine grained tannins. The bottle sample of 2010 Tenuta was more delicately perfumed than either of the more recent vintages – a very pretty, balanced and elegant wine but one that I felt may have entered its post bottling hibernation and will require many years to realise its full potential. All three vintages were excellent in their own right.
The three equivalent vintages of Palistorti Rosso were very good indeed – the 2010 had virtually become the “house wine” of the trip so far such was its popularity in the restaurants of Pietrasanta. It went down especially well with the grigliata mista we had enjoyed in Antica Macelleria Pietrasanta on the night of our arrival. The 2011 was a bolder version of the 2010 – more intense and concentrated but still balanced. It will be interesting to see how each vintage develops in bottle. My notes on the 2012 Palistorti are as foggy as the mist that enveloped the valley as I cracked my head off the barrel cellar ceiling while writing and walking at the same time.
As one would expect, self sufficiency and biodiverstity are emphasised in Valgiano, the most obvious manifestations of this approach being the excellent olive oil and truly delicious salami produced from the Cinta Senese pigs raised on the estate. Both of these were enjoyed over lunch with Laura and Saverio who were most generous with their time and hospitality. We talked of terroir, Demeter, natural wine and the commotion surrounding the recent Gambero Rosso editorials over a plate of pasta and fish while enjoying some of the recently bottled vintages, most notably Valgiano’s white whose tropical flavours worked especially well with the food.
So did I leave a changed man? The first thing that struck me was that the practical application of biodynamics in a real world winery poses quite a different challenge than merely dogmatically following the prescribed practices – at a very basic level one can’t slavishly follow the lunar calendar when such trivial considerations like rain need to be factored into one’s spraying regime.
The second thing to note is that nobody tried to convert me. The increased emphasis on ’cause and effect’, particularly in relation to vine and soil quality really struck a chord with me though. I found Saverio’s explanations to be both refreshing and disarming showing a level of respect and understanding for the land that was matched by his considerate approach in the winery. The biodynamic processes seemed more logical to me now than could ever be conveyed through book learning. Although part of me still remains sceptical about the science, as I lay in my bed in Panzano that evening looking out upon the vines of another winery, I did find myself wondering why a grower would consider conventional farming…?
My final thought is that there is more to the wines of Tenuta Di Valgiano than merely the aromas wafting from the glass – they manage to be of very high quality and express their terroir even in so-called tricky vintages. Maybe that’s the skill of the growers, the potential of the land or just maybe it’s the influence of biodynamics. Whatever the reason, I look forward to continuing my exploration with these very fine wines.
The wines of Tenuta Di Valgiano can be purchased in Ireland via Berry Bros. and Rudd.
PS: The bottle pics of Tenuta Di Valgiano Rosso 1999, 2009 and Palistorti Rosso 2009 are from my own collection – not the vintages that were tasted during the visit.
Disclosure: I was provided with a sample of 2010 Tenuta di Valgiano Rosso and Olive Oil to take home after my visit.