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Cantina Giardino

As winemaker Daniela de Gruttola explains, the hillsides of Campania are the fake south. You might expect big, rich wines from southern Italy, but here — with old vines planted to traditional methods at high elevation — the opposite is possible. The wines are all about freshness, acidity and purity. Take these natural conditions and pair them with an experimental, forward-thinking mindset, and you end up with the captivating cuvées of Cantina Giardino. 

As guest writer Sarah May Grunwald says, this is A Mission to Preserve. She travelled to visit them and takes us there virtually.

Sarah May Grunwald is a wine writer and educator, specialising in the wines of Italy and Georgia. She is passionate about natural wine and viticulture, and is also a permaculturist, beekeeper and animal rescuer.

Meet Antonio and Daniela

On a grey morning in late spring, on the first day that cross-regional travel is permitted in Italy, we drive down to Ariano Irpino in Campania to meet with Antonio di Gruttola and Daniela De Gruttola of Cantina Giardino. We want to better understand their approach to wine and see firsthand the vessels and cellar where they make their wine. 

When we arrive, Daniela lets us know that she’s been called up to get her first Covid vaccine; she’ll take us for the first half of the visit, after which Antonio will take over (welcome to 2021).

The winery is owned by Daniela, Antonio and four close friends. Together, they officially registered the company in 2003. They feel stronger as a group, emphasizing that it provides excellent psychological support. Sometimes they serve as consultants for other vineyards and producers who are aligned with their approach. 

We walk downstairs to their cellar, which sits under their home. Daniela tells us,

"We have 13 hectares of old vineyards, and all our history has been centered on historical vineyards. But during the ’80s and ’90s, many producers changed how they train vines, so they replanted using new training techniques. We were making wine for fun between 1996 and 1998, but were saddened by that destruction, even though we were used to significant changes in agriculture because of the earthquakes we get every 30 years here. In 1962, an earthquake ignited this considerable change. Thanks to EU funding for rebuilding, officials decided to plant vineyards that could be worked mechanically to take advantage of the funding.” 

Emigration from the area left almost only elders and women who wanted to preserve as many of the old vines as possible. It was a critical historical moment and the reason why international varieties didn't arrive here. The elders and women were the ones who saved the vines and stayed on to work. 

It was not the first time the local industry had pulled itself back from the brink. After phylloxera arrived in Campania in the 1920s and 30s, and killed off many vineyards, many growers replanted with American rootstock. 

“That brought significant change, but farmers had always planted original vines with their own rootstock [ungrafted],” says Daniela. “In the 1980s and ’90s, the European Union tried to flood the region with international varieties, but there was local resistance, and it was unsuccessful. We started our project in the early 2000s and had some pre-phylloxera vines because we had sandy soils that had preserved the vines.”

Amongst the vineyards they started with, several had been trained with the old system of raggiera avellinese, which consists of two plants whose trunks first run parallel and then crisscross at 170cm, allowing the clusters to grow on top and the vegetation to fall below. This is not to be confused with pergola, and the vineyards aren’t workable by tractor; instead worked and harvested entirely by hand. Daniela says,

“Under it, the contadini (farmers) used to cultivate crops such as tomatoes, wheat, and other crops so everything was tended together by hand. Production wasn't only for wine; the small plots were used for all kinds of agriculture. That’s why they used to train them to grow very tall, to give them space and light. The average plot size was relatively small because of the inheritance laws; everything was split, and then split again and again. It’s still common to see other crops in the vineyards, particularly fruit trees.”

Antonio adds, 

"In the typical style of training the vines, the vegetation goes up and grapes grow down. Instead, the grapes go up, and the vegetation falls below because the grapes need more sunshine to ripen. The clusters are exposed, there is a greater intake of light, and they are distant from the soil. In this way, the grapes are protected from humidity, since many of these vines are susceptible to fungal diseases. The vines have a more extended vegetative period that starts in April and is completed with the harvest in October."

October?! Yes - despite their southerly location, harvest here is late. Daniela explains, 

“In Italy, by the end of September, everyone has picked their grapes, but we still haven't started. We are at 870 meters; in the evening, there’s a sudden drop in temperature. It’s like fake south. We are in a particular part of the Apennines where the winters are quite rigid. There are places exposed to Adriatic Sea winds, but also Baltic winds.” 

"We’re the last in Europe to harvest grapes for dry wines. We harvest at the same time that the Valtellina region is harvesting for their passito. In 2004, we harvested as late as 17th November. Even at Christmas, our wines are still fermenting. Fermentation takes a long time because we don’t use temperature control. We’re now noticing changes in the weather due to climate change, and it’s becoming quite unpredictable. This year, the plants are behind.”

As well as preserving the ancient training system of the vines, Daniela and Antonio chose to keep them because of the incredible complexity they noticed in the wines they made from them (compared to the younger vines). This was thanks to their soil, a mix of sand, clay, and volcanic debris. The soil’s excellent drainage allowed for more complex and deep root systems; indeed many vines’ root systems are still gaining in depth. The couple wanted to put their energy into preserving their old vines and the peculiar training system that made them unique. Thus, they maintained the original environment of the vineyards, including the fruit trees and other crops. 

Daniela and Antonio are convinced that the great minerality of their wines is due to how they tend the vines and preserve their original character. 

Tasting wine with Antonio from amphora


The Wines

“We make wine according to local tradition,” says Daniela. “We don't use the term ‘natural wine’ because we first need to regain the term ‘wine’. Conventional wine should have a label. This is real wine, and the other is not. We drink a lot of wine, mostly from old vines. We like it. Our passion is to drink the wines that were always made in this way, when the winemaker would never have added anything during the winemaking process. We like to say that we just make wine.”

She continues,

“Winemaking is now a commercial enterprise. Many things must come together for a wine to be successful, from the design of the bottle and label. Wines are presented like natural wine because of their ‘attire’, but there is no mention of ingredients. Whoever produces natural wine must specify that the only ingredients are grapes. For example, we don’t add sulfites at any stage of production. We are very attentive to hygiene.” 

They tend to use mostly wood vessels because they believe that steel, being much colder, produces wines that are too ‘nervous.’ They prefer to use different types of local wood, terracotta amphorae, and an amphora of grès (sandstone) and cement. 

Cantina Giardino's name implies garden (although it’s actually the surname of two of the founders) — but indeed, their vineyards do resemble a garden — with fruits, trees, and bushes. In addition, they use barrels made from local chestnut, acacia, and mulberry wood.

They recently sent a barrel to the iconic Belgian brasserie, Cantillon, to make a beer with their wine named 'Sofia,' and then had their barrel maker make another one to replace it. None of the barrels have the same capacity; they’re all different, confirming that even a barrel is an artisan product, and is part of the terroir

Antonio also tells us that they took up making their vessels using clay from their land for fun (so they’re not large). They also use grès because there’s a long tradition of this in the area. These vessels are more standardized than the terracotta vessels; the grès is made with a specific, unvarying recipe. Terracotta, meanwhile, is less predictable because of the different clays and changes that occur when they’re made. 

The wines have high acidity, high tannins, and are very mineral. Not using sulfites allows for much more complexity in the wines. Even in the glass, you can feel the wine change. Antonio describes their thoughts:

"We try to keep our philosophy of making wines that are approachable to drink. But the cost is high because everything is done manually. To make it more efficient economically, we started to make wine in magnum, which helps to minimize the cost of the work. Our philosophy is to blend tradition with innovation to meet the expectations of modern wine drinkers. We tend to prefer a livelier and lighter wine.” 

There’s a good reason for this, says Antonio:

“Today, we don’t eat the food that was once paired with these wines, which was succulent and fat-filled so we could fuel the labour of the farmers or in those working in the factories. These foods are no longer consumed, and therefore the wines that went with them wouldn't go well with the foods we eat today. They ate lard, fat, and wine was a source of calories and, therefore, energy was integrated into the meal. Nowadays we drink wine as an accompaniment to food.” 

He continues,

“In this sense, we want to keep the wine traditional but integrated into our modern lifestyles. When people in restaurants do ‘traditional cooking,’ they’re not accurate or truthful because we no longer eat as our grandparents ate. Traditional recipes can now be revisited, but they are never consumed as they were before. It isn't sustainable to eat this way.”

This cultural shift has brought fresh thinking and diversified their wine range:

“We like to consider ourselves experimental. Even though we are attentive to tradition in the area, we don’t refrain from experimenting with different vessels, like acacia, cherry, chestnut, or amphora.”

“Perfect does not exist, just as the ideal person or perfect beauty does not exist,” explains Antonio.

In a sense, they are free from restraint — free to explore, and to find methods that suit their own taste.

"The flavor of wine is a subjective experience. A defect for one person may be disliked or enjoyed by two different people. Seasons change, weather patterns change, so it should be impossible for the wine to always be the same every year. Nature is not perfect, and wine shouldn’t be perfect either… thank goodness. Lots of products are standardized for homogeneity. With our natural wines, we hope to break some of the boundaries of modern winemaking. Beauty has flaws. They give the wine the freedom to express itself. I believe that even if a wine has a significant defect, it will find its own balance and have its own reason for existing. And this is not the case within the rigidity of modern winemaking. It is the winemaker's job to keep the quality of the grapes as close as possible to their original quality and state. Deconstructing the grape — the produce — through winery procedures will require artifice to restore its original value. If you mess with the grapes, they lose value, and then you have to use chemical procedures. Every grape is perfect from the field. So, we take what comes in from the field and maintain its quality.”

If that isn’t enriching food for thought, then we don’t know what is.

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