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Alkina — Regenerative Agriculture with Alberto Antonini

LITTLEWINE sat down with Alberto Antonini on his recent visit to London to speak about the wines of Alkina, in the Western Barossa. The winery was founded in 2015, and Alberto has also been working with renowned terroir specialist, Pedro Parra, to identify the soil types across the farm. Together with the Alkina team, they have converted the vineyards to a form of biodynamics-meets-regenerative agriculture. 

Alberto is the owner of Poggiotondo winery in Chianti. He has worked as a consultant oenologist for decades at wineries such as Biondi-Santi, Antinori and Frescobaldi (Tuscany, Italy), Au Bon Climat, Qupé and Robert Mondavi (California), Zorah (Armenia), Otronia, Zuccardi, Chakana, Trapiche (Argentina), but to name a few. 

He is renowned for his sensitive, hands-off winemaking techniques, and for focusing on vine material and terroir — although he is an oenologist, his methods are much less about winemaking, and much more about observation and organic farming. 

Alberto Antonini in London, October 2021

LITTLEWINE: It’s a pleasure to meet you, Alberto, thank you for taking the time. So… tell us about your approach at Alkina. You have worked as a winemaker for estates across the world for many years — how have you arrived at the approach you use today?

Alberto: Focusing on farming is nothing new. It’s more like we’re going back to the future. The terms organic and biodynamic are often used, so that people can understand the approach, but I also like traditional as a word. In the past, farming and winemaking was done through observation. Today, we can observe as well as use science to help us to understand more. The principles we should focus on are very few, and very simple. Sometimes people get a bit lost when we speak about organics or biodynamics — of course, the preps are important — but that’s not what makes the difference. You can also do too much, without necessarily understanding. I believe that you understand the basics of farming by looking closely.

LITTLEWINE: Yes, we imagine it’s a step-by-step process to get to know a new vineyard, and to know how to respond to it. We’ve read that these days you are focusing more on regenerative practices, please can you tell us more?

Alberto: The making of a great wine happens 80% in the soil, and therefore it’s very important how — and why — you approach soil management in the way that you do. You must first understand soil fertility, and how soil regenerates. The topic of soil fertility is huge — there is a lot more to it than what we have been told (especially at university). At university, they tell you that you must add nitrogen to get a big crop. But instead, we should be asking: what do I have already in the soil, and how can I take that out of the soil — but by taking and giving — not by impoverishing? The microbes in the soils allow tiny vine roots to absorb nutrients. Microbes are responsible for the fertility of the soil, and then the transformation of grapes into wine. They’re our best friends. We need to know how to please them. They need air, water and food, and they need to drink. So how do you help your underground microbes to thrive?

LITTLEWINE: That is the question. How do we?

Alberto: We must first start with the opposite of compaction. If your soil is compacted, the soil cannot move. That’s the opposite of what we want to achieve. We need to guarantee the porosity of the soil, so the microbes can live happily. But how? In forests, it’s easy, as there are no tractors, so it happens on its own. But in 99% of vineyards, we work with tractors, which generate compaction. When you’ve finished working with your tractor after harvest, you must reverse that compaction. So, right after harvest we simply aerate/loosen the soil, and then we develop cover crops. We use an aerator machine, which simply gently breaks the soil, without moving or changing the soil. That’s very important. Microbes live at different depths, and they have different characteristics. If you move the soil around, you mess the microbes up — you want to avoid flipping the soil. We also don’t like to cut the superficial roots. By simply loosening the soil, it allows the winter rains to be stored better, and to provide water to the microbes, and then the vines breathe and take a break.

Old vine Grenache

LITTLEWINE: And how about the cover crops?

Alberto: We mow the cover crop. The timing of mowing depends on which cover crop. For example, fava beans encourage nitrogen, so we cut those before fruit set, as we want the nitrogen to stay in the roots, not in the fruit. Then, by spraying the preps, like 500 (the cow manure), that helps with the decomposition of biomass, so the effect of the cover crops is faster. By doing this, the microbes work for you, increasing fertility and connecting the fine roots with nutrients. This part of soil management is key: it allows the microbes to be very efficient. It’s the most important part of organic farming. You see how the upper part of the vine reflects this, too — a beautiful canopy means a nice root system underground. We must stop the use of any synthetic chemicals in the soil [herbicides], as they destroy the microbes. We must also stop the synthetic sprays for the vines, too [fungicides], as they kill all of the plant’s natural antibodies. If you use them, the plants become like zombies. It's like they're drug addicted, and without those products they’re unable to protect themselves. Plus, those products also kill the natural yeasts living on the skins.

Working organically is the starting point if you want to make wine with a sense of place, and if you want to get the best possible out of that place. 

LITTLEWINE: In the Barossa, of course it’s hot. What happens in a dry year?

Alberto: Yes. In some parts of the world it’s possible to leave the soil completely untouched, but in the Barossa, the vines get stressed some years due to drought conditions. In those cases, we use a very gentle superficial tool which simply scratches the surface. By doing that, you stop the evaporation of water from the soil, as you interrupt the fractures in the soil by closing them. 

Soil pits to analyse terroir

LITTLEWINE: That makes so much sense. 

Alberto: Yes. And by using tools like electroconductivity, we know where to dig pits to study the soil and see the composition. Our business is driven by microbes in the soil first — and then making wine. By preserving the soil and by encouraging deep root systems, we can begin to understand the micro-terroirs. 

LITTLEWINE: And how about winemaking — how do you continue this approach in the cellar?

Alberto: The winemaking must be coherent with your farming principles. For us, that starts with natural fermentation, as we want to work with the local yeast population. Then, I believe in creating a nice environment for those yeasts — I like to work with natural materials — terracotta, oak, and rough concrete. I don’t like stainless steel. I don’t think any living entity likes to live in stainless steel, so I don’t think microbes like to live in stainless steel. If I had to sleep in oak, concrete or steel, I’d choose the oak or concrete any day. 

We laugh. It’s a great way to illustrate his point.

LITTLEWINE: Can you tell us more about your thoughts on natural yeasts?

Alberto: It’s just great to know that there are so many yeast strains working for you, like an orchestra, rather than just one Schwarzenegger yeast strain which kills all the others. We need diversity in yeasts to have diverse flavours in the wines. I learnt a lot about this from Soldera, in Brunello di Montalcino. They worked with a microbiologist who studied the yeasts in the winery. It was fascinating to learn that there are around 15 dominant yeast strains each year, of which five or six appear every year, whereas the others come and go. But, if you use a commercial yeast strain — even just once — then it’s going to be there for a very long time. They really do contaminate. 

LITTLEWINE: That is so interesting. Angiolino Maule told us something similar — that it’s the natural yeasts of each year which also translate the vintage. 

Alberto: Yes. I think using science as a tool to understand is a very welcome thing. We can use science as a learning experience, rather than use it to manipulate. Lead with what Mother Nature provides you, then use your tools to understand. 

Alkina's Kin Field white and red wines feature this beautiful artwork by Adnyamathanha artist Damien Coulthard, who used ochre pigments to create his interpretation of the energy from the soils and rocks of the vineyard (Kin Field White) and the night sky (Kin Field Red). 

From Alkina: The farm sits on the traditional lands of the Ngadjuri people, who live in this area and through Clare, up to the state’s Mid-North. We acknowledge the Ngadjuri people as the traditional custodians of this land. We seek to honour the land’s Aboriginal history, to learn from their spiritual relationship with Country and to promote the idea of guardianship rather than ownership. We pay respect to Elders past, present and emerging.

LITTLEWINE: And how about your vessels, how do you decide which to use?

Alberto: In the Barossa, it’s very sandy and warm, so the wines tend to develop more quickly. Therefore, I think they need more of a reductive environment, which is why I prefer concrete and larger format oak casks with thicker staves. We use Nico Vela concrete ‘tulips’ which I really like. They have a set cooling system in the concrete, which is very even and gentle, like having the tank underground. I also really like clay — it’s an amazingly diverse world. There are so many types of clay and types of production for clay vessels, it’s very complex. 

LITTLEWINE: And how about the maceration – whole bunches, none, or which percentage? 

We ask this as we taste the Old Quarter GSM 2019 — a blend of 50% Grenache, 29% Shiraz, 21% Mataro, made using 70% whole cluster. It is incredibly fragrant — like walking amongst heathlands during the summer. On the palate, the tannins are ever so light, almost fluffy in texture. It is a very gentle, elegant expression of the Barossa. 

Alberto: I believe that Pedro Parra uses a nice phrase — he says they’ve ‘got the fire.’ Schist is very close to fire — it’s intense — the wines have energy and intensity. We mitigate that with whole clusters to introduce layers and freshness. It’s a bit of a mystery, as when you work with whole clusters, the pH goes up, but the freshness goes up, too. But at the end of it all… who cares about the numbers? I believe in doing things by experience, by tasting, trying, and seeing what happens. Of course, it also depends on the vintage. I like to use a higher percentage of whole clusters in warmer vintages, and also for varieties that I call 'sweeter,' like Grenache, Syrah and Malbec. The stems break up some of those sweet flavours, giving you more complexity. 

LITTLEWINE: And how about that word: terroir… how do you think the soil type translates to the wines, if they do?

Alberto: It’s difficult to measure or isolate. I think sharing discussions is the only way for us to explore the topic, like we’re doing now. We must try to let the place talk to the wine drinker, and if it does, then the terroir is in the bottle. You don’t get that if you make wine with over-extraction, or heavy oak, etc. But we also evolve as people. When I was young, I thought my parents were so old fashioned. But then when you become a parent, you have the same problem! Who knows what we’ll say in 20 years? Maybe we’ll have the tools to answer the questions then...

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