Those of you who have been reading my blog recently are already aware of the fact that I have some interest in the question of organic wine and wine made by producers who are interested in sustainability. There has been some great discussion in some of the past posts on the subject, and I was especially interested in some comments from Il Palazzone, a winery that produces Brunello in Montalcino, Italy. After reading the comments made by Laura Gray, who is the estate manager for Il Palazzone, I decided that I would like to profile their winery here on Vinotology. Laura graciously agreed to talk with me about what they are doing at Il Palazzone.
VINO: Tell me a little bit about Il Palazzone.
Il Palazzone: Il Palazzone has been making Brunello since 1990; our first vineyards were planted in the mid-1980s. The current owner bought the property in 2000. We have vineyards in three different areas of Montalcino which allows us to benefit from the balance that derives from three very different (but complementary) terroir. We make between 8,000 and 12,000 bottles of Brunello every year from less than 8 acres of vineyards.
Vino: In a comment on my blog you mentioned that your winery “…is environmentally engaged but is not certified organic (nor will it ever be).” What are some of the challenges that would keep you from becoming organically certified?
Il Palazzone: The precise impediment that we face is that one of our vineyards (La Vigna del Capa) has seven “confinanti” [or neighbours] – other estates own vineyards adjacent or above. We would all have to request organic certification on the same day… an unlikely scenario.
This said, Montalcino is an area with a long history of winemaking and a deep-rooted tradition of caring for the territory and vineyards, using manual labour and minimal chemical intervention. If you were to try a 1955 Biondi Santi it would be an organic wine – there was no alternative to organic in those days.
Our winemaker, Paolo Vaggagini, talks about being “biologico di testa” – having an organic mindset – which might go above and beyond the rigmarole and expense of being certified organic.
Vino: Are there steps that your winery takes to create wines that are less dependent on certain additives (such as sulphides), and if so, what are they?
Il Palazzone: We are trying to make the right decisions to make the best wine and we apply the concept of doing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time….
The estate is small enough to permit an incredible level of control so we can really do this efficiently. Size is critical since it is much easier for small estates to constantly monitor and potentially intervene anywhere (both in the vineyard and in the cellar) at all times. Vagaggini compares vineyard practices and cellar work as two links in a chain that hold the weight of final quality. It doesn’t matter which link breaks, the end result is a loss of quality so both areas must be strong.
Vino: Do you think that the biggest gains in lower impact winemaking are made in the vineyard, or in the actual winemaking?
Il Palazzone: Local wisdom is that “il vino si fa in vigna” – wine is made in the vineyard – and we are very attentive in our work there. We have three full-time trained people who do all of the vineyard work.
Rather than using chemical fertilizers which pollute streams and groundwater, we plant cover crops – nitrogen rich leguminous plants such as lupins and fava beans – in alternate rows. These are then ploughed into the earth, enriching and fertilising the soil. This has many advantages: it reduces erosion, improves water absorption and increases soil organic matter which enhances soil structure. It can also lead to increased soil carbon sequestration which has been promoted as a mitigation strategy to help offset the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels.
Every week our agronomist, Massimo Achilli, visits the vineyard in order to assess the particular conditions at Il Palazzone. Our vineyards vary so much in terms of terroir that we benefit from an individual approach. This way of working ensures that we never do unnecessary treatments and that we only intervene exactly where necessary. Whenever possible we effect manual operations rather than exteranal treatments. For example, we will choose to strip away vine-leaves by hand in order to give the bunches as much air as possible after rain in order to avoid grey mould rather than spraying the vines with an anti-botrytis treatment.
In the cellar we use the minimum quantity of S02 that we can, evaluating in every moment all of the conditions at play. Obviously healthy grapes are a great starting point.
Vino: Consumers tend to think that organic certification means that wines are made in ways that are completely earth friendly and “better for you.” Do you feel like this perception is accurate?
Il Palazzone: The message that filters through is simplistic – organic is necessarily good and healthy. Unfortunately the flip side is that non–organic is necessarily bad. If you go a bit deeper of course it’s all much more complicated, like the buying local conundrum which is a total minefield if you start looking at transport:product ratios, etc.
One premise of organic (and therefore biodynamic) practice is only using chemicals that occur naturally in nature (so no synthetic chemicals). Personally, I think in terms of the environment this is irrelevant; what matters is the toxicity of the chemical (copper, for instance, is natural but also toxic).
A truly sustainable winery might exceed the requirements of organic certification and yet have nothing to “show” for it. Most organic certification does not address carbon footprint, water conservation, packaging, alternative energy, etc. so it’s only a part of the whole picture.
Vino: As a producer who is trying to make wine in a responsible and environmentally engaged way, what kind of challenges do you experience from a marketing perspective?
Il Palazzone: It is very difficult to communicate our position and consumers in general are ever more interested in organic. It seems like the market has become segmented between organic and non-organic as if these were black and white categories.
There was a great article recently by Tina Caputo showing all the different certifications for sustainable. It was amazing to me to see the number of different certifications. I am not surprised that the average consumer might be confused!
Vino: What steps does your winery take to demonstrate to consumers its commitment to environmentally responsible practices?
Il Palazzone: I have a whole section on our website about our responsible agricultural practices and our environmental commitments. I have started using social media and I hope that, for example, when I order our new lightweight bottles and post about it, that people who are interested in the estate will slowly see that we are trying to be responsible in all of our choices.
We receive a lot of visitors to the property and we show everyone what we are doing. A walk through our vineyards, surrounded by woodlands with over 50 kinds of plants, is a compelling introduction to our philosophy. We have an adoption program for our olive grove (Club100) so the olive trees are “owned” by people from all over the world and many come to visit. Our new cellar will be solar paneled and self sufficient in terms of energy production. The project also includes recovery of rainwater for estate purposes.
My husband Marco Sassetti, the general manager, is from S.Angelo in Colle, a village 7 km from Montalcino. He can’t help applying his “contadino” [peasant farmer] inheritance of not wasting anything to his management of the estate and this is evident wherever you look.
Laura and I have talked a couple of times since I first asked these questions, and she mentioned that the relationship between a producer and a consumer is really based on trust. “Trust between a producer and final consumer is a precious thing and far more powerful than third party certification. Here in Montalcino, where we have great vintage variation due to a combination of microclimate and not being able to intervene with weather, we all hope that our clients will trust us to have made the right decisions (reducing yields, increasing selection, etc.) to make a decent Brunello even in a two star year. The majority of properties are small here (under 10 acres) and most are not certified organic, although by and large the traditional vineyard and vinification procedures here are respectful of the environment.” We also talked some about the problem of greenwashing. Laura said, “I agree in general [that greenwashing is a problem], but if environmental concerns inform most of the choices an estate makes it's hard not to want to communicate this on some level. For me, it all boils down to trust, which is something that has to be earned.”
Photo of Laura Gray taken from Il Palazzone website