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Ampeleia

The story of Ampeleia is one of individuality. This is a place where thinking outside of the box has had a profound impact on a piece of land. The vineyards that are rooted here, and the winery in which their grapes are transformed into wine, demonstrate that healthy farming and creative thinking can come together to create something utterly unique. This is Tuscany, but not entirely as you know it.

The very notion of individuality also applies to the personal journeys of those who work at Ampeleia. Nothing here is set in stone, rather the opposite; by combining their thinking, all of the employees here contribute to little changes that occur on a daily basis, forming the present and future of this remarkable winery.

LITTLEWINE spoke to Marco Tait (Estate Manager and Winemaker/Viticulturist at Ampeleia) for this article, with the kind help of Lucia Telori (Communications and Italian Market at Ampeleia) for translation.  

The Ampeleia Story

The birth of Ampeleia occurred in the 1960s, when a Swiss couple purchased abandoned land in Maremma, Tuscany, turning it into farmland and planting some vines (including Cabernet Franc and Merlot).

In 2002, it was taken over by Elisabetta Foradori, of the iconic Foradori winery in the Dolomites, Thomas Widmann and Giovanni Podini.  Very early on in the journey, Elisabetta asked the young winemaker and viticulturist Marco Tait if he’d like to be involved. Two decades later, he’s still there, and he’s more in love with this piece of land than ever before. He begins,

“The idea was to have an agricultural project that was supposed to be different. It was sort of accidental that this was the area — Elisabetta and Giovanni found the land, and it fit all the categories in terms of what they wanted — biodiversity, and there wasn’t much culture in terms of winemaking, as there aren’t many vineyards around — it’s very different to other areas.”

Although Tuscany itself is very traditional, the fact they were a little further off the beaten track meant that this could become home to experiments and creative thinking; they could forge their own path. To join her in taking the first steps on this path, Elisabetta had one person in particular in mind. Marco comes from the same town as Elisabetta, and they’ve known one another since 2002. Marco graduated from viticulture and enology in 2000, and did his first harvest with Foradori in 2001. When Elisabetta and Giovanni had found Ampeleia, she reached out to him with one simple question: do you feel like coming for harvest?

Marco remembers,

“Since Day One, even since before the harvest, it was love at first sight. I never really left! The beauty of this place… we can try to describe it, but it’s impossible. There’s just something about the landscape and the energy. Everybody who comes here — from different places and backgrounds — all have the same feeling when they arrive. That’s why we love to have visitors!”

They began with more of a traditional approach, but without a set idea in their heads, taking things one day at a time as they explored their vineyards. Then, as Elisabetta converted Foradori to biodynamics, that thinking also transitioned to Ampeleia.

“We’ve always had a very diverse approach. Elisabetta never pushed us on what to do, but she suggested the biodynamic approach, and encouraged us to see agriculture in a different way.”

The Vineyards

Their full conversion took place in 2009 — first to organics, and then to biodynamics.

“2009 was a new path for us, and it didn’t happen all in one go. We followed different steps; the first was to work on the biodynamic preparations; trying to be confident in that. We wanted to be able to be completely autonomous at Ampeleia. We were working to bring a new message to the soil, and to take care of the land. The final step — and it won’t be the last one — was the introduction of our animals. In biodynamics, we focus on creating a ‘farm organism’ — and animals are one of the main things for that. So, in 2012, we got three cows. Today we have five cows, one bull, as well as chickens, ducks and geese.”

He explains that the positive results were quick to appear, and it wasn’t just the vineyards that saw the benefit; this way of thinking also translated into the overall wellness of the team. Marco says,

“We see Ampeleia and the company as a whole: the people and the vineyards. Elisabetta has always said that when you talk with someone, you see the reaction you have on the other person. People here have been touched somehow, there’s a different feeling of being involved in this idea or vision – it forms the basis of why they’re here. People are touched in different ways. The main thing is that you put yourself into discussion every day, as everyone has their own ideas, and like to discuss these ideas, and to have the freedom of doing that. Many young people have been reaching out to be involved in the project — that wasn’t the case when we started. Our relationships are easier; you open yourself up with more freedom; and don’t work in a formal environment. We are open to express ourselves, to share our knowledge – everyone has different backgrounds and their own kind of knowledge. We like to think that this is a place of transformation and growth, not just of fruit and land, but also of the people. Even with importers and clients there was a big change, as we were more open in our hearts.”

Dandelion biodynamic prep

Cover crops

By 2012 and 2013, they had noticed a prominent effect also in the bottle:

“There was a different vitality in the wines — it’s like the wines were telling a different story — with another depth and strength. They were more linked to the place, the territory, as though they had a more direct way to express themselves. As we say in biodynamics, the individualism gets stronger – and that was the case with the wines. They expressed themselves with their own voice.”

They have been working more and more to bring this sense of individualism to the parcels, to allow each vineyard to express itself as best as it can.

“If humankind has the sensitivity to let the parcel express itself, then it’s easier to attain a stronger message, and hence a better storytelling of the land. Differentiating the parcels is important as there’s a different sensitivity to be found. That’s why when we started in 2002 we had one wine, and now we have nine!”

Cabernet Franc

Cow horns for biodynamic preparations

He continues,

“We always say that biodynamics is a method. It’s not the goal, but rather a tool to try to reach what you want to achieve. It’s very important to highlight that. It’s a farming method that actually shows you what you have. It’s easier to realise this if you have a good soil — you have a good potential — and that’s why you feel more linked to the place. It’s this raw feeling of what you’re working with.”

Since their beginnings in 2002, Ampeleia has greatly evolved. They began with seven hectares planted, and by 2005, they had started to explore other pieces of land. Now, they have 35 hectares of vineyards, across four areas which are distinct from one another, so they can explore different expressions of their region. The plots vary from 250m to 550m above sea level, spanning across a Mediterranean and maritime climate, to a cooler, more continental climate in the Upper Maremma. All of the vineyards are located within the Colline Metallifere Geopark, recognised by UNESCO for its exceptional geological interest.

“Those first years were about discovering other pieces of land to plant vineyards and to try to figure out what varieties would fit here. Alicante Nero [Grenache, but a distinct selection from the area] is from here, but you don’t find it in many other vineyards around here — at least not back then. For us, the main grape varieties are Cabernet Franc and Alicante Nero. We see them as translators. Grape varieties are very important, of course, but their main function is to translate what they have underneath them; and the entire ecosystem that exists around them.”

Cabernet Franc on their 'galestro' soils (friable clay/limestone marl)

In addition to Cabernet Franc, Alicante Nero and Merlot, they also have Mourvèdre, Carignan, Alicante Bouschet and Sangiovese planted, as well as Trebbiano, Malvasia Bianca and Ansonica for their white wine. 

“From 2009, we became more flexible in the vineyards. We tried parcel by parcel to decide and read what the vineyard needs. The first rule is no rules — especially in vineyards! We work with cover crops – in autumn we decide which selection we need, and that might change according to the vineyard and according to the year. Sometimes we plant four or five species, other times up to 15. Then, in springtime, we cut the cover crop and dig it into the soil.”

Cover crops

This method of working with cover crops allows for an increase of nitrogen to reach the vines (helping them to grow), and by cutting the plants and allowing them to decompose, this also means that crucial organic matter is created.

“In certain years, we decide not to cut the cover crop, and rather leave it to dry out naturally. That helps with flowering and attracting bees. We try not to forget that we don’t only have vineyards, we are part of a different system. That is important to remember, and to do something good for the ecosystem.”

The Wines

As their methods developed in their vineyards, their approach in the cellar also meandered.

“Everything has changed in terms of our winemaking philosophy. We can better read the vineyards, so that means we can better make the wines. It’s about confidence, trust, freedom and love. It’s like climbing a mountain with a light backpack, we don’t have to worry about the weight, and are able to enjoy the path and the view a little bit more!”

He continues,

“Coming from this approach in the vineyards, and this agricultural method, when the grapes reach the winery, they’re healthy and we just need to respect them. It’s important to know the conditions of the year; what the grapes are coming from in terms of the vintage.  By trying to know as much as we can about what they went through, we accept them and respect them for what they are, and we start with that approach in the winery. We don’t try to look for something that isn’t there.”

Although this sounds beautifully simplistic, Marco emphasises that it’s never actually simple. He says,

“I must highlight that this doesn’t mean it’s easy. It’s important to be there all the time; to decide when to intervene, or when not to intervene. We never abandon the wines. Letting the grape and the wine express itself doesn’t mean that it does so on its own. Our presence is fundamental. It’s about knowing why you decide to not to something, while also knowing that you can intervene if you must.”

Their wines are elegant, bright and incredibly pure. When drinking a bottle of Ampeleia, we feel as though we’re being directly transported to the vineyard, picking a berry at harvest time to taste the fruit of this special place. It’s this purity that really strikes us. Marco nods,

“The wines must be healthy and bold; they must speak of a clear message. I don’t like defects in wine, or when people try to say that a defect is a part of terroir. It’s important to spread the message that it’s possible to make natural wines without defects. It’s important to remember that as wine producers we have double responsibilities – to create wines that respect the place, to focus on agriculture, and to spread that message. This makes it easier for everyone to receive the right message, and for our values to reach the consumer. We have the responsibility of communicating about our work and making the wine world more approachable for everyone. As wine is more talked about than other agricultural industries, such as vegetables, we have more opportunities to talk about what we do, what we believe should be done, and so we have the chance to speak for everyone in agriculture.”

It's a bold and important mission; Ampeleia is about dreaming big from a small place; and they are succeeding in this. Through these striking bottles and their honest and open communication, people can not only drink delicious wine, but to better comprehend the key philosophies and practices that underpin healthy agriculture.

As we finish our conversation, we ask Marco and Lucia what they hope to find in a glass of wine, out of curiosity. They both think for a little while, before telling us:

Marco: “I look for movement in a wine — energy — something that I don’t get bored of. For me, wine is about storytelling, something that keeps me in the moment. Then, of course, it depends on who you drink the wine with; it’s personal.”

Lucia: “The energy in a wine, it’s hard to translate what that is — it’s a striking feeling, a shiver. Especially on the nose. The taste can change so much, but it’s that little trembling feeling in your brain — the wine has something to say. If it’s a wine I really like and don’t already know, I’ll go and read about it. Then it becomes personal to me, and that’s always so interesting.”

We smile, and thank them for their time, feeling endlessly inspired. It's clear to us that these are passionate people who care so deeply about wine, but not just about the wine in the glass. For them, wine is a medium to delve into the world of agriculture, and to see the effects that healthy farming can have on the creative winemaking process. This is joy, creativity and dedication to the planet, bottled.

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