"I’ve entered a permanent endeavour to maximise soil health, and therefore to find the maximum expression of the soils in the wines. It’s an endless quest… a lifetime of searching."
Once upon a time, instead of tending vines, young Angiolino and Rosamaria had their hands deep in dough. They were pizza makers, and owned a renowned pizzaria. However, their dream had always been to make wine; Angiolino’s father had made a small amount and he wanted to carry on the family tradition. In 1979, they bought their house, and their dream became a reality when they were able to purchase neighbouring vines in 1988.
These days, they have become known as pioneers of natural farming.
We ask Angiolino what led him to work in the vineyards this way. He pauses, and says,
“well… do you want the truth?”
We nod, and he explains,
“To be honest, I hated wine as a child. My father passed away due to medical problems linked to alcohol, and my mother died of a tumour. It was a difficult childhood, but I think that made me more headstrong, and more driven. I was convinced that the only way forward was to work naturally. I was perhaps the only one in the area doing so at the time, everybody else either ignored what I was doing or pointed and made fun at my work, but I tried not to let it get to me…”
He is quiet for a while, and we sit, listening to the silence. It is a poignant silence.
He clears his throat and continues,
“When I began working in the vineyards, they had been treated chemically for a long time. Honestly, it took a very long time to see a difference. I believe it takes a whole lifetime to see true balance return.”
His quest for a modern understanding of organic agriculture even led him to form the association VinNatur, which now has over 180 winemakers as members. Founded in 2003, he was convinced that a group of producers needed to involve the scientific community to get answers to questions.
“We couldn’t just rest on our laurels and say, “we’re organic!” - we needed to do something of our own. Typically, wineries hire agronomists and enologists, but I wanted to involve microbiologists and carry out more complex scientific research in the vineyards.”
Various studies are carried out across all members’ vineyards. For example, they calculate the microorganisms that can transform organic substances of the soil, defining and encouraging those that are transformative, not putrefactive.
They also carry out research on insects and analyses on spontaneous grasses, and research how to lower the use of sulphur and copper applications.
“It is a cultural model based on scientific precision and a LOT of experimentation!” He emphasises, laughing.
He continues seriously,
“it’s important not to say “oh great - we have this or that, perfect.” Instead, we must compare year on year, to see improvements, and thus have the capacity to be self sufficient.”
Just half an hour in the car from Verona, the Maule vineyards snooze in the breeze on a sleepy hillside hamlet next to Gambellara. They began with six hectares, after which they expanded with four more hectares in 2006, taking on some single vineyards when Angiolino’s sons decided to join the family business.
When you think of Verona, your mind might wander to the wines of Valpolicella, Amarone country, where clay and limestone is dominant. We're shocked to look down and find charcoal-black earth below our feet, with black rocks. We pick some up and it looks like it has come straight out of a volcano…
…because it has. The soil here is primarily composed of basalt, an extrusive igneous rock. This means that it formed from lava that was ejected from below ground, via volcanic activity.
Sure enough, an extinct volcano lies nearby, in the town of Brenton. It has not erupted for circa 45 million years. It is thanks to this volcano that we have these soils of Gambellara and its neighbour, Soave.
Much of this basalt was dug out in the 1950s to make into rail tracks. Angiolino himself worked at a mine when he was very young, as a truck driver moving the basalt from the dig site to a processing centre. We find ourselves thinking that he has come full circle. There must be something deeply moving for him to now be preserving that same soil for plant life, instead of removing it for human use.
We pause, looking at the soil together. It’s a weird feeling to stand here, holding a piece of rock that comes from a world where not just humans but even monkeys didn’t exist.
Angiolino might work in a natural manner, but nothing is laissez-faire. He takes soil analyses twice a year in order to be able to understand the soils, and learn about their evolution. The analyses tell him about the fertility, as well as the quality and quantity of microorganisms dwelling in the soil.
“The more microorganisms and antioxidants there are in the soil, the healthier the plant is, and the more it can defend itself against disease.”
He uses vegetable extracts to give the vines a helping hand; in a sense to boost their natural immune system. These include various herbs including sage and rosemary, as well as sea algae. These stimulate the plant to produce RHA proteins, the “antibodies of the plant world.”
Work has been organic since day one, with elements of biodynamics. He lets native plants thrive amongst the vines, while also sowing cover crops when he feels the soil needs them. The goal is to achieve as much diversity as possible. He ploughs every other row in the vineyard once a year to 40cm deep only, to ensure the soil’s microbial health is disturbed as little as possible, while introducing oxygen to the vines’ roots.
“Oxygen is so important for the vine. It allows the root structure to develop properly. The roots are the brain of the plant.”
For Angiolino, it is important to use the tractor as little as possible, and so he uses biological methods where he can. He explains,
“the vine would be healthy if it wasn’t for human intervention, but we create vineyards, and our way of tending vines will always somehow weaken the vine... whether that’s the tractor that might compact the soil, or by pruning, when we inhibit the plant’s own plumbing system. I’ll never reach the end point, I’ll keep trying to improve for the rest of my life.”
While Angiolino’s work in the vineyards has always been without chemicals, for the first few years, in the late 80s and early 90s, he worked with various products in the cellar.
“I had a bit of a crisis in 1991 and 1992,” he muses. “I knew I was doing good work in the vineyards, but I didn’t feel like I was being as conscientious as I could be. I was weighing out products to use in the cellar, but for me, wine is the fruit of the earth, cultivated by man, and I felt as though I was being dictated by the guidelines of “what to do in winemaking.”
So Angiolino flipped winemaking on its head; learning by doing. Today, the only external element that enters the cellar is a small amount of sulphur for some cuvées. Others are bottled without sulphur. He believes nothing can be added to the wine, and nothing should be taken away, because the wine should always be made in the vineyard.
However, this doesn’t mean it is lazy winemaking. Aspects such as maceration time, ageing time and racking decisions vary greatly from year to year, but it is all done by feeling.
“Over the years, you learn how to help a wine on its evolutionary journey,” he shrugs, modest as ever.
He also adds that the minerality and complexity you find in the wines comes from allowing the wines to ferment naturally; much of other Garganega produced lacks character due to being fermented with lab-cultured yeasts.
We ask him if he feels that his various plots express themselves differently. He thinks for a while, and we get the feeling that we're not going to get a direct answer.
In fact, we get as close as possible to having no answer.
“Perhaps Sassaia expresses my artistic vision for wine the most,” he begins. “But in truth, I believe the winemaker is the last person who can objectify his wines. It’s like with your children; you can’t really make your own judgements, you’re biased!” He laughs.
“The volcanic soil is rich in minerals, and I believe the wine is rich in these minerals. But as I said earlier, I’ve entered a permanent endeavour to maximise soil health, and therefore to find the maximum expression of the soils in the wines. It’s an endless quest… a lifetime of searching...” he trails off.
It is clear that Angiolino is a man whose mind is constantly whirring. We're left thinking that this plot of land and this cellar is lucky to have him at the helm.
Want to find out what a wine grown on the soils of a volcano that eruped 45 million years ago tastes like? Feel like a sparkling wine that tastes like pear juice?